U.S. war veterans challenge NATO's occupation of Chicago

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Veterans of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are now challenging the occupation of Chicago.

This week, NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is holding the largest meeting in its 63-year history there. Protests and rallies will confront the two-day summit, facing off against a massive armed police and military presence. The NATO gathering has been designated a "National Special Security Event" by the Department of Homeland Security, empowering the U.S. Secret Service to control much of central Chicago, and to employ unprecedented authority to suppress the public's First Amendment right to dissent.

The focus of the summit will be Afghanistan. "Operation Enduring Freedom," as the Afghanistan War was named by the Bush administration and continues to be called by the Obama administration, is officially a NATO operation. As the generals and government bureaucrats from around the world prepare to meet in Chicago, the number of NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 topped 3,000. First Lt. Alejo R. Thompson of Yuma, Ariz., was killed on May 11 this year, at the age of 30. He joined the military in 2000, and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Shortly after his death, the Associated Press reported that Thompson would be receiving the Purple Heart medal posthumously and is "in line for a Bronze Star." On Wednesday, President Barack Obama awarded, also posthumously, the Medal of Honor to Leslie H. Sabo Jr., killed in action in Cambodia in 1970.

While the president and the Pentagon are handing out posthumous medals, a number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will be marching, in military formation, to McCormick Place in Chicago to hand their service medals back. Aaron Hughes left the University of Illinois in 2003 to join the military, and was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. He served in the Illinois National Guard from 2000 to 2006. Since leaving active duty, Hughes has become a field organizer with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). He explained why he is returning his medals: "Because every day in this country, 18 veterans are committing suicide. Seventeen per cent of the individuals that are in combat in Afghanistan, my brothers and sisters, are on psychotropic medication. Twenty to 50 per cent of the individuals that are getting deployed to Afghanistan are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or a traumatic brain injury. Currently one-third of the women in the military are sexually assaulted."

IVAW's Operation Recovery seeks increased support for veterans, and to stop the redeployment of traumatized troops. Hughes elaborated: "The only type of help that [veterans] can get is some type of medication like trazodone, Seroquel, Klonopin, medication that's practically paralyzing, medication that doesn't allow them to conduct themselves in any type of regular way. And that's the standard operating procedures. Those are the same medications that service members are getting redeployed with and conducting military operations on."

Another veteran -- of the anti-war movement of the 1960s -- and now a law professor at Northwestern University, longtime Chicago activist Bernardine Dohrn, also will be in the streets. She calls NATO the "militarized arm of the global 1 per cent," and criticizes Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for misappropriating funds for the summit: "Suddenly we don't have money here for community mental-health clinics. We don't have money for public libraries or for schools. We don't have money for public transportation. But somehow we have the millions of dollars necessary ... to hold this event right here in the city of Chicago."

Occupy Chicago, part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has been focused on the NATO protests. The unprecedented police mobilization, which will include, in addition to the Chicago police, at least the Secret Service, federal agents, and the Illinois National Guard, also may include extensive surveillance and infiltration. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the activist legal organization Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ) indicate what the group calls "a mass intelligence network including fusion centers, saturated with 'anti-terrorism' funding, that mobilizes thousands of local and federal officers and agents to investigate and monitor the social-justice movement." PCJ says the documents clearly refute Department of Homeland Security claims that there was never a centralized, federal coordination of crackdowns on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Aaron Hughes and the other vets understand armed security, having provided it themselves in the past. He told me the message he'll carry to the military and the police deployed across Chicago: "Don't stand with the global 1 percent. Don't stand with these generals that continuously abuse their own service members and then talk about building democracy and promoting freedom."

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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